U.S. Loses Crown as World’s Top Grain Shipper to Black Sea

  • Black Sea exports probably rose to a record last season
  • Shipments surge as crops expand, local currencies depreciate

The Black Sea, a burgeoning source of grain exports, has probably overtaken the U.S. for the first time to become the largest shipper on the global market.

Exports from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan probably rose to 80 million metric tons in the 12 months through June as crops expanded while local currencies weakened, making overseas sales priced in U.S. dollars more attractive, according to UkrAgroConsult. Shipments rose 14 percent from a year earlier and were about 10 percent higher than those from the U.S., data from the Kiev-based researcher and the International Grains Council showed.

Countries in the Black Sea have become a powerhouse in grains in recent years. Russian exports of wheat more than doubled in the past decade while Ukrainian corn shipments surged 17-fold, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The biggest traders, such as Cargill Inc. and Louis Dreyfus Co., have offices in the region, and international commodity exchanges are considering how to introduce Black Sea futures that attract trading.

“It’s a milestone for the Black Sea,” Matt Ammermann, a commodity risk manager at futures and options broker INTL FCStone Inc., said by e-mail, referring to the latest estimated exports. The region "has always been susceptible to weather risk, a bit more than Western Europe and the U.S. due to farming practices. As these practices become more efficient, yields should become more stable.”

Russian Exports

Ukraine accounted for most of last season’s shipments, probably increasing exports by 13 percent to 37.85 million tons, UkrAgroConsult said in a report. Russian overseas sales are forecast to have risen 9 percent to 33.5 million tons while exports from Kazakhstan are estimated at 7.4 million tons, a 22 percent increase from a year earlier.

Russia boosted sales to Arab countries; Ukraine did likewise to Thailand, Indonesia, China and the European Union; and Kazakhstan to Iran, Turkey and China, said UkrAgroConsult analyst Marina Sych.

While the gains have been driven by bumper crops and weaker currencies, traders have also sought to boost exports to compensate for a drop in prices, UkrAgroConsult said. The researcher expects shipments to remain high in the 2016-17 season.

Wheat Futures

The Black Sea’s ascendancy over the U.S. may not last into the current season, as dry weather cuts the size of the crop in Ukraine. Exports from the three Black Sea countries, which were 4.8 million tons bigger than the U.S. in 2015-16, will probably be 2.2 million tons smaller in 2016-17, the London-based IGC predicted.

As the Black Sea becomes more important for global grains trading, commodity exchanges are paying close attention. CME Group started Black Sea wheat futures in 2012, but they didn’t manage to attract enough trading. Euronext is planning grain contracts for the region, Olivier Raevel, head of commodities at the bourse, said earlier this year.

"One would think there should be a need for Black Sea futures," said Michael McDougall, a director at Societe Generale SA in New York. "But so far it’s been hard to make contracts work partly as farmers don’t hedge out forward. They sell more on a spot basis. There’s also political risk."

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